12th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 04.09.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
We love stories, don’t we. Let me just take one day from our recent family holiday. If I was to describe it in facts and figures – 2,870 feet climbed, 7 miles walked, 4 water bottles drank – it wouldn’t really tell you very much. But if I was to tell a story, of how I was returning to a mountain I had last climbed 25 years ago, and where I had got horribly lost in the mist and had had to descend via a cliff edge, and that now, on returning, my legs turned to jelly, that I had to cling to some borrowed walking poles as I focused on the path ahead and not look down at the 1000 foot drop on my right, of how my mountain leader trained brother talked me through it as my children climbed nonchalantly and easily over the rocks ahead, you may begin to get a bit more of the flavour of the day. You may even remember it to tea and coffee time. It may even prompt you to want to ask questions, like why and was it safe? Stories can draw us in. They can prompt a response. They are easy to remember.
It is why when we think about the teaching of Jesus, what for so many of us comes most readily to mind are the stories he told, his parables. We may not feel confident to recite his statements, his sermon on the mount for example, but most of us would feel confident about remembering the story of the good samaritan or the prodigal son, or the lost coin, for example. The parables are vivid, pictorial images – easy to remember. Around 55 of Jesus’ parables are passed on to us through the gospels. He told more stories than he made statements; he asked more questions than he gave commandments. Well, over the next few weeks, through our sermons on a Sunday and through a new daily devotion series that Jeremy will be writing, we will be exploring just some of those parables, and seeing what they have to say to us today.
As we begin, it may be worth saying a few general points about how we can understand the parables.
Firstly, it is worth understanding the context in which Jesus told them. Jesus spoke to people who lived in a predominantly agricultural, rural society in the first century middle-east, and his stories, his parables, were all about daily life lived then, about growing crops, tending vineyards, shepherding sheep, building houses, and so on. Life has changed quite a bit since then. We may need help to understand, for example, why being locked out of a wedding banquet by a bridegroom could happen and why it was such a shameful thing, or why there was such fear of returning absentee landlords, both themes of Jesus’ parables. Sometimes, a little bit of work is required to get the point of the story.
It is also worth understanding Jesus’ wider teaching and ministry as he was telling the parables. There has been a temptation in modern times to treat Jesus’ parables as stand-alone pearls of moral teaching, a little bit like Aesop’s fables, but actually, the parables were always connected to other things Jesus was saying and doing. There is a consistency, an overall message, that it is important not to lose.
And thirdly, its probably good to avoid seeing them as riddles to be solved or secret codes to be cracked. There was a trend at one time to view every aspect of parables as having a meaning, of being an allegory. Augustine in the 4th century, for example, took even the minutest details of the good samaritan story and attached it with meaning. So the inn where the man was treated represented the church for example and the two coins paid to the innkeeper represented the two commands to love God and neighbour. Such an approach to the parables, however, over-complicates their meaning. They are not some spy-code to be cracked. They are stories to be experienced and responded to.
So it can be more helpful to ask not so much “what do the details of this parable mean?” but “what does the parable make me think and feel about the kingdom, the world, God or myself? What is the overall impression I’m left with?”
So today we are going to start with the parable Jesus told to introduce all the other parables, the parable of the sower, the story of a farmer who scatters seed on the soil and sees widely different results, some seed being eaten by the birds, other seed shrivelling up in the heat, other seed being choked by weeds, and yet other seed bearing amazing growth. It would have been a story that would have been a daily topic of conversation for all in first century Palestine – how do we get our wheat to grow? There were no mechanised bird-scarers, no fertilisers and insecticides to protect and nurture the crops. Maybe if Jesus were around in 21st century Europe and he was talking about wheat growing, maybe he would be referencing reduced yields due to drought and climate change and to enemy armies marching through harvest fields and destroying crops. These were live issues to which everyone could relate.
And the connection of such a story with Jesus’ own ministry would have made sense to many too. Large crowds were gathering to hear him teach, but responses to what he had to say were widely different. Did that make what he had to say questionable? Did that draw into question whether what he was saying was true?
The women and men disciples following Jesus would have seen how the villagers in Nazareth had responded to Jesus when he preached in the synagogue – how before they had given any real thought to what he had said, they had reacted, looking to throw him off a cliff, almost as if Jesus’ words had been snatched away from them before they had had time to sink in and bear fruit. Jesus’ followers may also have thought of the Pharisee who had invited Jesus back to his home for a meal, showing initial interest, but then had quickly distanced himself when Jesus accepted the shocking actions of an unnamed woman in washing his feet with perfume and drying them with her hair. It was almost as if the Pharisee’s initial interest had withered under the scorching glare of public disapproval, just like the story of the seeds.
And yet they would also have seen more positive responses to Jesus that just burst forth with fruitfulness and abundance. How a Roman centurion’s faith had led to the miraculous healing of his servant; how a tax-collector Levi had abandoned his shady dealings and adopted a good life instead; how a woman was so overwhelmed by Jesus’ love and forgiveness that she had fallen at his feet in an act of unrestrained generosity; how women such as Joanna, the wife of Herod’s household manager, and Suzannah, had turned their back on the norms of the day and were actively following and financially supporting Jesus’ work.
Here were signs of life, of generosity, of love, way beyond anything anyone could have expected, just as the yields in Jesus’ parable were way in excess of any normal harvest. An exceptional yield in Jesus’ day was 15 times what was sown. Jesus speaks of 30, 60, even 100 times.
And so this parable is a parable to understand Jesus’ own ministry and people’s responses to him. But what can it say to us today? For me there are three things to take away and ponder.
I’m struck by how Jesus’ message is given freely without prejudice. The seed falls on all soil. Jesus didn’t wash his hands on the people of Nazareth or on the Pharisee, or on Levi or the centurion for that matter, and tell them, “this message is not for you”. Instead he offered the message, but left it to them to respond. The message of God’s love is for all people. We do God a disservice when we, by our actions or our words, seem to infer that some people are not ready or worthy of receiving the message of his love. I wonder if I do that in any way?
Secondly, I am struck by the fact that my life being fruitful cannot be taken for granted. The parable prompts me to ask of myself: where is my heart hardened, like that soil, unreceptive to nurturing God’s word in my life? Are there particular relationships in the family or at work where I am hardened, unwilling to love? Are there other aspects of my life where I have shallow roots, where I am fearful of the cost of doing the right thing, knowing that I may lose friends or influence? Or areas of life where I am so pre-occupied with other concerns I fail to focus on what really matters, allowing the weeds to stifle growth?
And thirdly, the parable prompts in me the question: where do I see the abundant, overwhelming fruitfulness of the kingdom of God, the love of God. We may see it in the response of so many in our community, in charities, churches, schools, in council employees, to responding to the growing cost of living crisis, wanting to make a difference, going the extra mile. We may see it in the countless hours of caring and compassion by family members, care assistants, Good Neighbour volunteers for those who are isolated and alone. We may see it within our own church community, as we see lives positively expressing God’s love and grace. And by God’s grace we may see it in ourselves, seeing how God’s love has transformed us over the years.
Take time this week to ponder on the questions this parable may prompt in you. I wonder, in doing so, what fruit the sowing of such seed may grow.